Lisa Harker wears a button that says, “It’s pronounced mental illness, not crazy.” Understanding the signs of mental health conditions, she says, is the first step to reducing the stigma of seeking treatment.
“My favorite thing to say is that kids need to know who to talk to and adults need to know how to respond,” said Harker, program coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Health West Central Indiana, during a presentation Tuesday at the Montgomery County Youth Service Bureau.
NAMI’s Ending the Silence program educates middle and high school students, school staff and families about the symptoms of mental illness and recovery and coping strategies.
About one in five teens experience a severe mental health disorder at some point, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Half of all chronic mental illnesses begin by age 14, studies show.
“The [elementary schools] are begging for a program to be done for the elementary students,” Harker said.
The intensity, duration and disruption to life caused by a mental illness, Harker said, differentiate the symptoms from common childhood behavior. Those symptoms include: feelings of sadness or withdrawal for more than two weeks; severe, out-of-control risk-taking behaviors that cause harm to self or others; and drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality or sleeping habits.
Just half of children ages 8-15 with mental health conditions receive treatment, experts say. Along with stigma, Harker said, the lack of area providers is a major barrier to mental health care.
Bethany Babcock, 21, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which was genetically linked to her biological mother, and other mental health conditions in middle school.
Her family worked with school counselors to set up a personalized learning plan as Babcock learned to manage her health.
“It was almost like having to deal with two worlds at once, one world that no one else could rationalize with, hear or even see, and the other reality that everyone else just like me have around them,” Babcock told a small crowd of students, YSB officials and mental health volunteers.
She graduated high school with academic honors, earned a full-ride scholarship to college and plans to pursue a nursing degree.
The presentation was part of YSB’s mental health awareness programming. A suicide prevention walk steps off at 9 a.m. Saturday at Milligan Park.